FOCUS Documentary Propaganda

Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera is a remarkable film. It is unlike anything that came before or after it in Vertov's œuvre, Soviet cinema or indeed the history of film. The film is a documentary made by one of the most prolific and vociferous defenders of non-fiction (or 'unplayed') film. 'Unplayed film' (neigrovaia fil'ma) was the contemporary Soviet term for the genre. Vertov used the term 'unplayed' to highlight his 'Cine-Eye' Group's approach to using factual material. Thus it is the difference in the material itself from scripted drama that is important. Vertov's own phrase was 'life caught unawares' (zhizn ' vrasplokh). Vertov saw documentaries as the only valid form of film. The Man with the Movie Camera is a statement of commitment to the documentary approach. It is also a 'box of tricks' that serves as an essential example of Soviet montage and a catalogue of the possibilities of filming technique.

Vertov and his editor Elizaveta Svilova constructed the film from material 'captured' by the Cine-Eye team during the turbulent years 1924-8. It is a document of a period of transition in the history of the Soviet Union, of modernism and Constructivism -indeed of the cinema itself. The Man with the Movie Camera can also be viewed as a cinematic affirmation of the Stalinist policies about to unfold: crush resistance in the countryside, urbanise, industrialise, purge opposition.

The Man with the Movie Camera was previewed by the Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration (VUFKU) in the autumn of 1928. It had its first public showings in Kiev on 8 January and in Moscow on 9 April 1929. The film was then quickly shelved in the Soviet Union whilst going on to some critical success (or at least interest) after screenings in Berlin, Paris and London. It stands as one of the most important films in the history of documentary cinema. It is also a creative masterpiece.

To talk about 'plot' with reference to a non-fiction film, particularly this most militant of non-fiction films, may seem perverse. However, in general terms non-fiction film does require a narrative role /structure. Early documentary-makers, e.g. Robert Flaherty, were attracted to the classic genre of the journey. The other favoured structure, particularly when attempting to present the chaotic activity of the city, was 'a day in the life'. The most famous example of this approach is Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt) (Germany, 1927). Among the many concepts and conventions that Vertov plays with in his film is the diurnal narrative and indeed narrative itself.

The Man with the Movie Camera does have a plot. It is typical of the playful nature of the film that it initially appears to be structured around a (generic) 'day in the life' format. In this case we appear to be watching the cameraman's day as it connects with a (constructed) city. The breaks from this narrative are largely cutaways to show the process of the energy production that makes all the activity possible. The film continually pulls the viewer away from the possibility of too simplistic a reading. Most obviously, the diegesis is clearly constructed from footage from several sites. Not only is there a lack of geographical continuity, but temporal continuity is also broken deliberately and ostentatiously. Sequences, or more usually fragments of sequences, are repeated and utilised in different juxtapositions.

One third of the way into the movie narrative is halted as the film itself 'stops' for an educative exercise in editing technique. From that point on 'day in the life' reading becomes increasingly difficult. All human life is here from birth to death via childhood, marriage, divorce, work, rest and play. The last three activities are a key to Vertov's message. The overall structure of the film does lend itself to the more ideological view of the 'day' as one third rest, one third work, one third (constructive) leisure.

The moving images begin with a cameraman 'mounting' a giant camera to survey 'the city'. The 'man with the movie camera' (i.e. the cameraman) enters a cinema that is being prepared to show the film The Man with the Movie Camera. The audience enters, the band waits and then begins to accompany the film.

A woman is dreaming of the city (still asleep). Various scenes of inactivity (including sleeping cab drivers and babies) illustrate this. Machinery stands idle. A car arrives at an apartment block to pick up the cameraman. He films an onrushirig train and appears to be caught on the track. The woman awakes, dresses and washes. The city begins to awake. A vagrant stirs and laughs at the camera. On Tverskaia Street in Moscow, previously deserted, people appear.

The cameraman begins his tour through the city that is now bustling. Meanwhile miners work to dig the coal that fuels the activity of the factories that spring into action. The machinery, which had previously been still, is now working. The cameraman films a street market and means of transport including buses, trams and aeroplanes. He strides through the crowds. He observes the opening of shops and the activity of a policeman on traffic duty. At the Main Railway Station in Kiev cabs await passengers. The cameraman pursues them, filming groups of passengers. Their images, and others including laughing children, are frozen -and brought to life - by the film editor in her laboratory.

Activity in the city continues: people marry and divorce; a funeral takes place and a birth. The pace of life speeds up. A woman's eye (that of the editor) blinks and surveys the skyline. Her gaze swoops down on the streets. An accident has occurred and the cameraman follows the ambulance to the site. Then he films a fire engine on an emergency call.

The editor cuts together the activities of a beauty parlour and manual labour. Whilst she edits, other women sew. Machine operators become like machines. Miners continue to quarry. The activity becomes more and more frenetic, until the machines come to a halt. The workers wash and change. Workers engage in healthy activities on the beach. A magician entertains children and the camera does magic tricks of appearance and disappearance too.

The cameraman films the production of a wall newspaper and is drawn to an item about sport. The fit and happy Soviet workers engage in exercise. The cameraman takes his equipment for a swim.

The cameraman enters a bar. The camera becomes drunk. It staggers past a 'Candles and Icons' store. No Soviet audience would fail to understand the message that religion and intoxication are closely linked. As an antidote, 'the man with the movie camera' marches purposefully to the Lenin Workers' Club (in Odessa). Workers read, play chess and listen to the radio. A musical performance utilising household items takes place on screen.

Back in the cinema the audience is watching as the camera, much to its amusement, takes on a life of its own. It also enjoys a montage of dancing and music making. Crowds mass on screen as the audience looks on. Giant cameras dominate the city as the Bolshoi Theatre implodes. Time speeds up. Images from earlier in the film return with increasing rapidity. The pace continues into a blur until the camera closes its 'eye'.

This torrent of action and cinematographic magic would be enough - if not too much - for any audience. But there is more to The Man with the Movie Camera than meets the (unsuspecting) eye - much more. Vertov was not only an inventive cinematic artist. He was also a political film-maker. The Man with the Movie Camera is his masterpiece as a political film (however flawed or unsuccessful in its propagandistic role) (see Olympia, chapter 7). Vertov was a film-maker committed to a political position (Marxism-Leninism) and to a rigorously thought-out documentary practice.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• What is the point of documentary? How might its uses and forms have changed since the 1920s?

• How objective can documentary ever be? Can it ever tell the whole truth?

• If you were the subject of a documentary, how would the presence of the camera affect your behaviour?

Further Viewing

Nanook of the North (Flaherty, USA, 1922) The Cameraman (Keaton, USA, 1928) Olympia (Riefensthal, Germany, 1938)

Further Reading

G. Roberts, Stride Soviet (London, 1999)

G. Roberts, The Man with the Movie Camera (London, 2001)

B. Winston, Claiming the Real (London, 1996)

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